20 years of Clarkson: Kia Rio LX review (2004)

Her name is Rio and she ... well, you really don't want to know

Originally published February 15, 2004

Under normal circumstances I know you’re not very interested in cars such as the Kia Rio you see photographed here. However, stick with me, because you can buy it, brand new, for one pound.

One pound is really very little for a full-size car. Actually, it’s even very cheap for a 2in model of a car. I’m not sure, but I bet you couldn’t even buy a pair of shoes for a pound.

Plainly, there are going to be a few drawbacks with a car this cheap. And sure enough, there are. You may have seen The Fly II, in which a scientist attempts to teleport a dog. In one of the most gruesome scenes I’ve seen in a film it arrives at its destination completely inside out. Well, the Rio is uglier than that.

Inside, things get worse. Yes, there is plenty of space for generously proportioned adults in the back, but only because there’s almost no space in the front. Those with long legs or a bit of a gut — and I have both — will find the driving position excruciating. And you should see the quality of the interior trim.

I’ve used many metaphors in the past to describe cheap-looking plastic but none seems to work here. It does not feel as though it was made from a melted Action Man. It’s not like a video rental box. It’s even worse than a Barnsley market trader’s Pac-a-Mac.

Now, I was going to explain at this point that such things could be overlooked in a car that costs a pound. But then I found that it’s not a pound at all. The headline-grabbing sticker price is just a deposit. To secure the whole car you will end up paying seven thousand, five hundred and seven more pounds. And that looks one of the biggest jokes in automotive history.

This kind of money would get you a real car, a Fiat Panda with some change. Or a Nissan Micra. Bargain a bit and it would get you a Ford Fiesta 1.25 Finesse, a Renault Clio or a Volkswagen Lupo. In fact, the list of things I’d rather buy with £7,508 is endless. It even includes 750,800 one-penny chews.

2004: the year in cars

 Good news for drivers when parking wardens in Lambeth are suspended after residents spotted their tactics: creeping round streets at 3.30am to issue tickets every night.

 Bad news for drivers: the Reva G-Wiz electric car is displayed at the Birmingham motor show.



I knew it wouldn’t be much cop when the man from the importer asked, incredulously, why on earth I wanted to road-test it. And my expectations fell even further when he telephoned just 24 hours after the car arrived, to see how I was getting on with it. Car firms rarely do this; it implies they have no confidence in the product. But sadly his nerves didn’t lower my expectations quite far enough, because the Rio was dreadful. Sure, with 1.3 litres under the bonnet you get more cubic capacity than you do from an equivalent Euro car, but as we chaps keep being reminded, size isn’t important. It’s what you do with it that matters. And what Kia does with its 1.3 litres is nothing at all.

The actual performance figures don’t look too bad if you’re used to walking. Standstill to 62mph takes 14.2 seconds, and in the absence of a headwind it will crack 100mph.

But not on a hill. I have cycled into Chipping Norton from my house — once — and didn’t notice any gradient, but the Kia did. And in fifth gear it simply didn’t have enough oomph to overcome gravity.

Then there’s the quality of the power. It comes in lumps, as though the engine mapping were modelled on Monument Valley. One minute you’re on a plateau; then for no obvious reason there’s a burp of torque followed by a hole the size of the Grand Canyon.

And the noise. Oh my God. You long for the moment when you can cut the din by going into fifth … but when you do, you find yourself on another hill, virtually grinding to a halt.


Mind you, the need to move around at 4mph is useful because of the way the Rio goes round corners. I haven’t driven a car so inert and with so much body roll since the 1970s. If you have a Hillman Hunter now, you will probably find this acceptable. If you don’t, then you won’t.

Small wonder Kia’s importer in Britain is sponsoring the Pedestrian Association’s Walking Bus scheme. The idea is that parents take it in turns to walk a group, or “bus”, of children to their school in a morning.

After three days of being transported in the Rio, my kids thought it was a brilliant idea to walk instead. Even though their school is 18 miles away and it was blowing a gale directly from the Canadian tundra.

So, why is the Kia so bad? Well, typically what happens in an emerging economy is that the government doesn’t want to see its hard-earned cash being squandered on cars and trucks imported from elsewhere. So indigenous car firms are established, and to protect them huge import duties are introduced.

Kia went bust when the tiger economies collapsed, and had to be rescued by Hyundai. But as a general rule this protectionism causes these car firms to flourish. Then, when things are going well, they decide to earn foreign currency … so, hey presto, Kia and Daewoo, Hyundai and Proton — not to forget Perodua and SsangYong — all end up in Britain. This would be fine, but here in the West our grandparents grew up with the car, whereas in Korea everyone’s grandparents grew up on an ox. In their civil war, which started only 50 or so years ago, the army in the south faced the Russian T34 tanks on horses. As a result a car, any car, is still a novelty.

It’s no surprise to find that over there the Rio is called the SF, which — I’m not joking — stands for Science Fiction. To them it’s probably as amazing as the Model T Ford was to Americans 90 years ago.

Think about it. The people who designed the Rio got the wheels in the right place and knew how to fit electric windows, but they know nothing of engine refinement or suspension compromises. For Koreans, trying to make a world-class automobile is as hard as us trying to make a mobile phone. We simply wouldn’t know where to start.

So, will Kia ever get it right? Well, today the western car firms are technologically advanced, but look where that’s got them. General Motors makes more from financing cars than it does from building them. Fiat is in deep, deep dung; Chrysler has been swallowed up by Daimler-Benz; and Rover, the last drop of Britain’s once mighty car industry, is teetering on the edge of evaporation.

Even Nissan had to merge with Renault, so there was no chance for Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, all of whom are now under the Ford umbrella. Not that there’s much respite under there, since Ford itself is perilously close to bankruptcy.

Maybe all the Korean firms will come together to form a sort of Korean Leyland.

Maybe the whole thing will be brought to its knees by an oriental Led Lobbo. Maybe they will one day make a car every bit as refined and lusty as the Fiat Panda.

Or maybe, just maybe, the problem the western car firms are having is that their cars are just too good, too complicated. In the heat of competition they’ve accelerated their technology to a point way in advance of what the customer needs. I mean, electronic brake distribution — really? What’s that all about, then?

So maybe the Kia Rio is actually what the market wants these days: something that’s not very good, but probably good enough.